Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhill, Madison Avenue ad man mistaken for an international spy
New York City, Fall 1958
Film: North by Northwest
Release Date: July 28, 1959
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Tailor: Arthur Lyons of Kilgour, French & Stanbury
Wardrobe Credit: Harry Kress
North by Northwest is famous for being one of the best thrillers and espionage films of all time, but it has also received plenty of accolades as the greatest “suit movie” due to the sharply-tailored gray-blue Glen plaid suit that Cary Grant wears throughout the film. In August 2015, Esquire gave it the top spot on its Greatest Suits in Film list… which also included several other heroes you’ll see on the pages of BAMF Style.
The suit even inspired a short story from writer Todd McEwen, retelling North by Northwest from the perspective of Grant’s tailored suit and shining a light on just how important costuming was to the film. The story is naturally titled “Cary Grant’s Suit”.
North by Northwest stars Cary Grant as Roger O. Thornhill, a smooth but bland advertising executive who finds himself thrust into the world of international espionage after a case of mistaken identity over drinks with friends. The adventure takes him from his familiar Manhattan trappings and halfway across the country through Chicago before finally ending up clambering over presidential noses on Mount Rushmore. It’s one of the few movies I consider perfect from start to finish, thanks to Hitchcock’s impeccable direction, Ernest Lehman’s tight script, Bernard Herrmann’s tense musical score, Saul Bass’s iconic title sequence, and a cast boasting Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Martin Landau, and – of course – Cary Grant.
Like Three Days of the Condor and several other “innocent-man-on-the-run” movies, the protagonist hardly has a chance to change his outfit. In this case, he has several opportunities to change clothing* – actually wearing a red cap’s uniform at one point – but why should he? It’s a great suit!
* And, yes, Thornhill does eventually change into the off-the-rack shirt and slacks during the finale. However, this is not his decision and he still manages to make the random woman in the hospital swoon.
What’d He Wear?
“He’s a well-tailored one, isn’t he?” notices Leonard, the effeminate henchman brilliantly played by Martin Landau, when he first encounters Roger Thornhill in the study of a remote mansion in Glen Cove, New York. Of course, had Leonard done his homework and noted the size discrepancies between George Kaplan’s diminutive measurements and the 6’1″ man standing before them that he believes to be Kaplan, he may have realized that Valerian and Licht have made a mistake. (Interestingly, Landau’s suits were also made for him by Cary Grant’s personal tailor.)
Cary Grant’s image persists nearly a half century later as an immaculately-dressed gentleman. “I can’t think of him without thinking of him in a beautiful suit, shirt, and tie,” recalls co-star Eva Marie Saint. “That was such an important part of his image. It was so smart of him. I don’t know any other actor who could do that.”
In an era when men’s screen costumes were often left up to the actors themselves, clotheshorse Cary Grant was able to cultivate his image to ensure that his on-screen persona reflected his authentic passion for elegance in real life. By the late 1950s, Grant was already a living icon as one of the biggest stars in Hollywood. He was able to command his own wardrobe as his written contracts stipulated that he could keep any suit made for his movies… and between Notorious, To Catch a Thief, An Affair to Remember, Indiscreet, That Touch of Mink, and Charade, those are some hella stylish movies.
In a 2013 article for The Telegraph‘s Luxury section, Mr Porter features editor Mansel Fletcher reflected on the three elements that made Grant’s North by Northwest outfit so damn memorable in the actor’s grand filmography:
The first was the intention of the director. Eva Marie Saint told Cary Grant biographer Richard Torregrossa, “Hitchcock made everybody in the picture dress in a classic style… He didn’t want the picture to date because of the clothes.” The second was that Grant, largely free to choose the clothes he wore on camera, understood what flattered his physique. The last was the skill of his tailors.
If Roger Thornhill was going to be trapped wearing the same thing for an action-packed couple of days, this was certainly the outfit to be trapped in! Classically elegant yet comfortable and practical, Thornhill’s gray-blue Glen plaid business suit is tailored to create a long silhouette to perfectly flatter Cary Grant’s lean and tall physique.
Although it appears medium gray from wider shots, a closer look at the suiting reveals a fine plain weave Glen check in gray and blue, likely in a worsted wool with a light weight suggested to be somewhere between 10 oz. (according to Bond sartorialist Matt Spaiser) or 13 oz. (according to bespoke tailor Chris Kerr).
According to Richard Torregrossa, six total suits were made for Cary Grant in North by Northwest. The most frequently seen suits were made by the Duke of Windsor’s suitmaker, Arthur Lyons, at Kilgour, French & Stanbury. When Grant didn’t want to ruin these Savile Row suits during action sequences like the famous crop duster scene, he wore a “stunt suit” version made by Quintino in Beverly Hills as one can tell by the label when he is taking off the jacket in Eve Kendall’s hotel room.
Thornhill’s suit jacket is single-breasted with a 3-roll-2 button front as the notch lapels gently roll over the top button to show only the bottom two. Leviner Wood suggests that the somewhat narrow lapels “must be 3¼” to 3½” wide.” There is a slanted buttonhole through the left lapel.
Grant typically only buttons the center button of his suit jacket, if any at all. Although he’s made the mistake of buttoning the bottom button in some films (Charade comes to mind), he sticks to only the center button here, which is perfectly placed directly over the part of his waistband where his shirt meets his trousers. The three front buttons and the three fixed buttons on each cuff are all cyanic gray plastic.
The clean lines of Thornhill’s suit are accentuated by the jetted pockets that sit straight on his waistline without flaps that would interrupt the silhouette. Even his welted breast pocket is devoid of Grant’s usual crisp pocket square.
The prevailing style of the time was a boxy, full cut reminiscent of early 20th century sack suits. While Thornhill’s suit is fully cut, the front is subtly darted to create a better sense of shape and enhance the lean silhouette desired by Grant. This suit also has straight, padded shoulders with slightly roped sleeveheads. Legendary tailor Douglas Hayward reportedly told Torregrossa that the practice of padding Grant’s suit jacket shoulders was used to create a symmetrical balance against Grant’s considerably large head.
Grant’s habit for placing his hands in his trouser pockets would make a double-vented jacket the ideal choice for him, but this ventless jacket was cut high above the trouser pockets which – in tandem with Grant’s 6’1″ frame and his sense of class – prevents it from rumpling when he does indeed place his hands in his pocket.
So how about those trousers? They have a considerably long rise, even higher than Grant’s usual high rise. The waistband has a clean, minimalist look with no belt loops; instead, the trousers tighten around the waist with a buckle-strap adjuster toward the back on the right and left sides. Each adjuster consists of a short strip of cloth that is fastened through a small, silver-toned clasp. A square-ended extended tab with a hidden hook closure fastens the waistband in the front.
There is a wide gap between the top of the trouser and the top of the double forward pleats, which appear to begin a few inches down at Grant’s natural waist line. The pleats contribute more roominess to the loose fit throughout the seat and thighs with a full cut down to the bottoms, which are finished with tall cuffs. Each of the bottom turn-ups is possibly about 2″ long. There is a slanted pocket on each side of the trousers, but only one back pocket – a jetted pocket on the right.
Mansel Fletcher notes that “Grant knew that a suit with the appearance of an unbroken vertical line (albeit with powerful shoulders) makes a man look tall and elegant; for this reason his trousers are cut wide through the hips, in order to meet the hem of his jacket, and the jacket doesn’t have flaps on the hip pockets, or vents at the back.” Interestingly, Grant himself would comment in 1962 for GQ magazine that “Trouser cuffs seem to me unnecessary, and are apt to catch lint and dust,” but that he also “content myself with side loops” rather than belts or braces for his trousers.
Something interesting to keep in mind is that the film begins at the end of Thornhill’s workday. And, with a newspaper dating the next day to Tuesday, November 25, 1958, that would mean Cary Grant ends his Monday at the office looking better than most people do before going out.
The Dress Shirt
An elegant, well-fitting suit is one thing, but it needs a fine shirt and tie to complete the look. Grant knew what he liked and what worked for him, as biographer Richard Torregrossa recalls: “The fabric of the shirts were soft, but the underpinning could be firm so that the collars wouldn’t sag. He liked clothes with a high thread count and quality cotton, like Sea Island cotton, as many of us do today.” (Interestingly, Ian Fleming also preferred Sea Island cotton and often outfitted his literary James Bond in the fabric; North by Northwest is often seen as an influential precursor to the cinematic 007 franchise.)
This distinctive soft collar can be found on the white poplin dress shirt that Grant wears when suited up as Roger Thornhill. This semi-spread collar has long points and resembles an unfused, less structured button-down collar.
Thornhill’s dress shirt, suggested to have been made by Nat Wise of London (now Anto), continues the clean, minimalist look of the suit with its plain “French front” placket and no pocket. The back is shirred at the yoke, and the tail—only seen when he takes his pants off in Eve’s hotel room—is long in the front and back.
The shirt has squared double cuffs (also known as French cuffs, continuing the shirt’s Gallic themes) and another button further up the forearm to button the gauntlet.
At least four – and possibly more – sets of cuff links are seen on Thornhill’s wrists throughout North by Northwest, making it the only major wardrobe inconsistency. Despite the inconsistency, each set of links all follow Grant’s own rules as he laid out for GQ in 1962: “…if you wear cuff links, as I do, don’t, I beg you, wear those huge examples of badly designed, cheap modern jewelry. They, too, are not only ostentatious, but heavy and a menace to the enamel on your car and your girl friend’s eye.”
Thornhill’s Cuff Link Collection
Thornhill’s cuff links typically alternate between a set of solid silver ovals or light blue enamel mounted on silver. He definitely wears the silver oval links from his entire Glen Cove debacle through the United Nations stabbing. He again wears them for dinner with Eve on the 20th Century Limited and during the famous “crop duster” scene in Indiana.
The light blue enamel cuff links are also very frequently seen, mostly when on the 20th Century Limited (other than his dinner scene with Eve in the dining car.) He again wears them when visiting Eve in her Chicago hotel room after the crop duster incident.
For the early scene when he is joining friends for drinks at the Plaza Hotel (and then kidnapped!), Thornhill wears a much more ornate pair of large gold semi-sphere cuff links.
By the time Valerian and Licht get Thornhill into their car and the kidnapping has kicked off, Thornhill appears to be wearing two different cuff links! It could just be the light, but it looks like gold on his right cuff and silver on his left?
Finally, there is a mystery set of links that Thornhill appears to be wearing at Grand Central Station when phoning his mother prior to boarding the train… and again while actually on the train and investigating his broken glasses while he is “sardined” in Eve’s berth. Either the light is reflecting on his flat silver links strangely, or he is wearing a pair of mother-of-pearl discs in these scenes.
Accessories and Accompaniments
No flashy ties or loud prints for Roger Thornhill. With his suit, Grant wears a gray woven satin silk tie, tied in a four-in-hand knot with the pointed blade appropriately ending just where it meets the trouser line.
Grant wears a pair of dark oxblood leather four-eyelet cap-toe oxford shoes with hard brown leather soles. The very dark brown leather of the shoe recalls Grant’s own footwear advice in GQ: “a brown pair of darkest chocolate color are useful with almost all suits…” Thornhill’s thin ribbed light gray socks are slightly lighter than the suit but just enough to still ease the transition from trouser leg into shoe.
Due to Thornhill’s insistence on hygiene—both for himself and for his suit—we also get a good look at every part of his outfit… whether you wanted to see it or not! Thornhill wears a standard white cotton crew-neck t-shirt with short sleeves under his dress shirt; since he always keeps his collar and tie perfectly in place, this is only seen when he removes the tie to shave in the Chicago train station. Thornhill’s pale yellow cotton boxer shorts are only seen when he prepares his suit to be pressed while in Eve’s hotel room, a few scenes later.
Grant wears his classic gold Cartier Tank watch on his left wrist, usually covered by his omnipresent shirt cuffs but revealed when using Eve’s tiny razor to shave in the train station. Introduced in 1919, the Cartier Tank was one of the original men’s wristwatches and is still in production nearly a century later in a variety of styles. Grant’s yellow gold watch has a white square dial and is worn on a black leather strap. (The current available equivalent would be the Cartier Tank Solo CRW5200004, available from Cartier for $5,200… before sales tax, of course.)
After he is falsely accused for murder at the U.N., Thornhill dons a pair of sunglasses to alter his appearance as he makes his escape to Chicago. His wayfarer-style shades have auburn tortoiseshell plastic frames and green lenses.
It is borderline impossible to tell that the photo on the right has the same man as the photo on the left!
The frames had been identified as Tart Arnel, which has been firmly debunked by Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern. Stern’s October 2013 article documented his correspondence with Richard and Mary Tart, who said that Grant’s sunglasses were too large to be a model that they produced, although the current Arnel 55 appears to be a very close approximation. Two years later, the Huffington Post interviewed Warby Parker CEO Neil Blumenthal, who offered his own suggestions on how to sport shades like Roger Thornhill as well as offering two Warby Parker alternatives: the Ormsby and the Downing.
George Kaplan’s Style?
So how does Roger Thornhill measure up to the “real” George Kaplan? When investigating Kaplan’s room at the Plaza Hotel in New York, Thornhill’s mother makes a sarcastic remark that inspires Roger to check out the enigmatic spy’s closet. Sure enough, four or five suits are already in the closet. Thornhill grabs one suit – a navy herringbone-striped two-piece – and tries on the jacket with comic results.
Go Big or Go Home
Twice divorced for leading “too dull a life”, Roger Thornhill’s mettle is tested as soon as he is thrust into Valerian and Licht’s car at gunpoint. He is initially nonchalant, responding to every threat with his own quick wit before the danger of his situation becomes apparent to them. Unlike most modern action movie heroes, he has no secret special forces background or training that he can fall back on; all that can save him is his crafty wit.
“I was saying that you may be slow in starting, but there’s nobody faster,” Thornhill’s colleague says to describe his drinking abilities. Thornhill’s crapulous tolerance not only makes him a popular drinking buddy, but it also appears to save his life! Vandamm’s henchmen pour an entire bottle of Century bonded bourbon down his throat, hoping that the resulting drunkenness will force him to fatally crash “Laura’s Mer-CEH-des”. Little do they know that Thornhill is a pro when it comes to swilling whiskey; he regains enough of his senses to take control of the car and attracts the attention of the Glen Cove Police Department… and Sergeant Emil Klinger is far more forgiving than Valerian or Licht would be.
What to Imbibe
If North by Northwest is an accurate depiction of drinking culture in the advertising world circa 1960, Mad Men certainly hits the level of imbibing right on its ruddy nose. Thornhill joins associates for a post-work martini, where his abilities to catch up with them are praised. He never gets his martini, but Vandamm’s goons do shove the entire contents of a bottle of bourbon down his gullet.
While on the run with Eve Kendall, he still takes every opportunity to enjoy a drink with the lovely femme fatale, from a Scotch (“With water. No ice.”) in her hotel room to a Gibson martini on the 20th Century Limited. Since Cary Grant had a real life preference for martinis, let’s talk about that Gibson!
Although the venerated gin-and-vermouth martini dates back to the 19th century, the Gibson’s origins come from Thornhill’s world of “three martini lunches” in the early 20th century. A perhaps apocryphal story cites an American businessman named Gibson who wanted to keep an edge on his hard-drinking clients and associates during lunches. While the other men would receive their martinis with the more traditional garnish of a lemon twist or olive, Gibson would request his with a cocktail onion… of course, the onion noted that Gibson’s drink was merely cold water.
A perhaps more credible theory is that bartender Charles Connolly was challenged by artist Charles Dana Gibson to improve upon the martini so Connolly merely swapped out the traditional garnish for an onion and named the new concoction after his challenger.
No matter how, when, or why the first Gibson was made, the important thing is that you are able to make one that would make Cary Grant proud. TO do so, pour 2 ounces of English gin and ⅓ ounce of dry vermouth into a shaker with ice cubes. Stir it until it is ice cold. The shaker should be so cold that your hands are starting to get frostbite. Then pull the chilled martini glass (which please tell me you have) from your freezer and strain the gin and vermouth into it. Garnish with a silverskin onion and there you go.
How to Get the Look
Roger Thornhill’s suit in North by Northwest is legendary among cinephiles and sartorialists alike. However, a bespoke suit can be expensive and still won’t make you look like Cary Grant… but this iconic look is worth keeping in mind if you want to make an impression.
- Gray-and-blue fine Glen check plain weave lightweight worsted wool tailored two-piece suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted 3-roll-2-button jacket with notch lapels, welted breast pocket, jetted straight hip pockets, 3-button cuffs, and ventless rear
- Double forward-pleated high rise trousers with clasped side adjusters, slanted side pockets, jetted right rear pocket, and turn-ups/cuffs
- White poplin dress shirt with semi-spread point collar, plain front, and double/French cuffs
- Gray satin silk necktie, tied in a four-in-hand knot
- Rounded silver or blue enamel cuff links
- Thin ribbed gray socks
- Burgundy cordovan leather 4-eyelet cap-toe oxford shoes
- Tortoiseshell-framed sunglasses with green bottle lenses
- Cartier Tank wristwatch with yellow gold case and white square dial on black leather strap
- White cotton short-sleeve crew neck undershirt
- Pale yellow cotton boxers
You can buy all of these things, but keep in mind that Cary Grant will still look better than you.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Check out the movie.
Now you listen to me, I’m an advertising man, not a red herring. I’ve got a job, a secretary, a mother, two ex-wives, and several bartenders that depend upon me, and I don’t intend to disappoint them all by getting myself slightly killed.